I went to see Bohemian Rhapsody over the weekend. The film is about the band Queen and the life of their celebrated front-man, Freddie Mercury. I thought it was great; in-fact, I’ve spontaneously broken out in Queen songs ever since, singing “Galileo, Galileo, Galileo Figaro” as I’m driving to work. But there are many critics who don’t share that sentiment.
Bohemian Rhapsody was conceptualized in 2010 already, but the road towards making it happen doesn’t seem to have been an easy one. Difficulties such as creative differences between those involved in the project initially hindered it from getting off the launch pad. Borat star, Sacha Baron Cohen was originally first in line to play Freddie Mercury. But he and the members of Queen couldn’t agree on the type of film they wanted to make, which caused him to abandon the project. Stephen Frears, who was one of the directors involved in the early stages of production said that “Sacha wanted to make a very outrageous film, which I would imagine Freddie Mercury would have approved of.” Cohen wanted to make a tell-all, R-rated film that highlighted Freddie Mercuries extreme lifestyle whereas, according to Cohen, the surviving members of Queen “wanted to protect their legacy as a band.”
Before Bohemian Rhapsody was released, many were concerned that it wouldn’t accurately portray Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality and death from AIDS. After the first trailer was released, writer and director Bryan Fuller tweeted: “Anyone else mildly annoyed that the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ trailer features gay/bi superstar Freddie Mercury flirting with and twirling with a woman but no indication of his love of men?”
AIDS activists also weren’t too happy with the film. An organisation named ACT UP protested at premiere of Bohemian Rhapsody. According to campaigner Dan Glass, “people got in touch saying have you heard about this film? There’s such little mention of HIV and AIDS throughout the entire thing”. He also added that “A lot of us are HIV positive, or we’ve lost loved ones due to AIDS. Freddie Mercury was a HIV positive migrant. This film was an opportunity to address that.”
I can imagine how difficult it must be to tell such a story. How do you take a complex individual such as Freddie Mercury and fit all the nuanced details of his life, his musical career, his sexuality, his struggles and his triumphs into a 2 hour film? And how do you tell the story in a way that’s still entertaining, but also fairly accurate? And how do you make everyone happy with the final product when everyone seems to have their own agenda?
Sacha Baron Cohen wanted the film to focus on Mercury’s debaucherous lifestyle while Queen probably felt that the music and their journey as a band was more important. Different people with different agendas all wanted it to be, not only Freddie Mercury’s story, but their story. The gay community wanted the film to tell their story and AIDS activists wanted it to tell their story. But what we end up with is a film about a man, but no one except those who knew him the best can tell exactly where the historical man ends and the legendary man begins.
This made me think about the Jesus story. People have often accused me of being anti-Christian or anti-God, but I can assure you that I’m neither of those. I like to believe that a Jewish Rabbi named Jesus lived in ancient Palestine. I also like to believe that he was an enlightened and revolutionary human being who had a massive impact on the culture of his day; kind of like a first century, Jewish Freddie Mercury… or maybe not quite.
For the most part, I love Jesus and I love his story. But there is no doubt in my mind that the line between history and legend has been blurred to such an extent that we can’t say for sure where the historical Jesus ends and the legendary Jesus begins. I can imagine that people were so inspired by him that they wanted to tell his story. At the same time they also wanted it to be their story that furthered their agenda. There were political, religious and cultural agendas that influenced how the story was told.
For instance, Jesus died within a couple of hours of being crucified, whereas it generally took a few days. This has led some scholars to doubt whether he even died. Perhaps someone took him down from the cross before he could die. This is a real possibility; there were many stories of people who survived crucifixion. This would also explain the resurrection story and how Jesus could appear to his followers days later with the wounds still visible. Or perhaps he really did die, but what happened to his body? Did he really rise from the dead or was his body taken? If he did rise from the dead, it would be a pretty big deal; it would mean that the Jewish religious leaders might have murdered their own messiah. There had already been many uprisings, so at that point Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor was under a lot of pressure to keep the peace. So, another uprising would cause big problems for him. But if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, what would that mean for his followers? It would mean that Jesus was either a liar or a crazy person and they wanted to preserve their movement and protect Jesus’ legacy. Can you see how there were all these agendas at play? And can you see how different factions would have told the story in such a way that it served their agenda? What we are left with now is a big mush-mash of history, legend and propaganda.
And things haven’t changed all that much. I’m not anti-Christian or anti-God; I simply raise questions and critique a certain view of God that I find to be unhealthy. I have a problem with people using the Jesus story to further their own agenda; whether that agenda involves money, control or whatever the case may be.
Bohemian Rhapsody tells the story of a man, but who knows for sure where the historical man ends and the legendary man begins? The line between the two have been blurred and as we’ve seen, that’s a problem for some. But most of us don’t really care; we just want to enjoy the film and our salvation doesn’t depend on whether or not it’s factually correct. But apparently our salvation depends very much on whether or not the line between the historical Jesus and the legendary Jesus is clearly defined in our minds. But what if the question of whether or not the Jesus story is factually correct isn’t such an important question?
Bohemian Rhapsody is considered by some to be one of the best songs ever written, yet no one really knows what it’s about and what it means. Even Freddie Mercury himself said that “it’s one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them”. And I think this applies to the Jesus story as well. Maybe those who wrote these stories didn’t get their facts straight or maybe they just didn’t care. Perhaps it was more important to them to tell a great story that got a message across than it was to tell a factually correct story. And maybe, just maybe none of that really matters. Because maybe, at the end of the day, it’s less about figuring out whether or not the story is historically true and more about enjoying the music and deciding for yourself what that means for you.